Four different variations of this building have stood on the cliffs overlooking Seal Rocks, at the northwest corner of San Francisco. Two earlier versions were rather modestly small in size, especially when compared with the elaborate eight-story Victorian building, which stood on that spot from 1896 to 1907 as the third Cliff House. But when that ornate building burned down, the fourth version to be built was designed more like the first two simple, and made to blend in with the ocean and cliffs surrounding it. That fourth version is still standing today.
The various Cliff Houses were mostly used as a dining establishment, dance hall, gift shop and scenic vista spot. From the windows of the building, a person could see for miles down the coast. They could also sit at their table and watch any ships that might be sailing in or out of the Golden Gate. Regardless of which incarnation of the building a person was visiting, they always had a spectacular view.
There were various means of commuting out to this spot. At first there were horse-drawn carriages, which for a small fee would take them on the approx. 45-minute trot from downtown to the ocean. Later, trolley lines were in place for frequent runs back and forth across the city.
There were several other attractions for people to visit after making this trip out to the coast. Depending on the year, people could also walk among the statues in the elaborate gardens above the Cliff House, on the grounds of Sutro Heights. There was also a sky tram that carried passengers between the Cliff House and Point Lobos, along the water’s edge. For many years, just down the hill from the Cliff House was a large amusement park called Playland, and directly North of the Cliff House were the elaborate swimming/ bathing/ sauna buildings of Sutro Baths.
And of course, people have always loved just strolling along the beach, breathing in the salty air and listening to the waves.
Along north beach, right before point lobos (the point where the coast turns in towards the Golden Gate) there is a fancy restaurant called the Cliff House. The restaurant, located near scenic cliffs, overlooks the Pacific Ocean (nice for sunset dinners) as well as a formation of rock outcroppings in the ocean called Seal Rocks. The outcropping gets its name because seals use to sun on the rocks around the turn of the century. Recently the rocks have gone to the birds, with numerous gulls punching on them during the day. However, the rocks make impressive edifices sticking out of the ocean.
The Cliff House is all that is left of the pleasure center that was located at this scenic portion of the Pacific Coast. In the 1890's a benevolent man named Adolph Sutro, who made his fortune building a tunnel into the Comstock, moved to San Francisco and took up residences in what is now known as Sutro Height. Sutro wanted a resort for San Franciscans so he bought a run down resort called the Cliff House. But his vision did not end there, he was fascinated with the sea creatures that he found in the rocks and crevices to the north of the Restaurant so he walled off a section of the cove to create tide pools. For people to view these creatures. He then went one step further. He saw the therapeutic value of swimming in salt water so he wanted to build a bath for people to go in to swim. He wanted to model it after European baths, but wanted this one to be for the common person. Quickly realizing that people would not want swim outside (North Beach is known for both fog and cold wind) he decided to build a tropical paradise inside a glass building with Victorian arches, palm trees and even a live band. There were multiple tiered baths that had cold water brought in at high tide. Sutro, being an Engineer, also drilled tunnels into the cliffs so people could watch the waves hit against them, as well as search for sea creatures. The building has been likened to a Victorian Palace with Roman baths inside.
Being the only place in town to go (the bridges had not been built yet) and with Sutro's own transit line, the baths were a very popular place to go until around the 1940's where they began a gradual decline. They were finally abandoned to the elements in the 1950 and in the 1960 they were slated to be to torn down and housing built. (If the developers had there way there would be no open space in the entire Bay Area.) Then a mysterious fire (note this is different from the mysterious fire that destroyed the Cliff House in 1907) finished off the baths, burning the building down to the foundation.
You can still go and see what is left of the crowning glory of Sutro and imagine what the place at one time was life. On a clear day you have a great view of the pacific and Seal Rocks.